A Conversation with Senator Snowe

Posted by Blake Wright on August 04, 2014 at 10:28 AM


CSA had the privilege of hosting Senator Olympia Snowe at a Pizza and Policy event a few weeks back where we were able to hear about about her time in the Senate, Congress' drastic shift away from bipartisanship, and her work with the Bipartisan Policy Center's Commission on Political Reform to put Congress back on track.


Several students tweeted in questions for the Senator during the event which she took the time to respond to below. Read on to see her answers!

Q: How has Congress changed for women since you first joined and how do you think we can encourage more women to get involved in the political process?


A: Certainly the number of women in Congress today has grown.  In this current Congress, there are 99 women between the House and Senate.  When I was first elected to the House of Representatives in 1979, I was one of only 17 women in the two chambers.  In fact, I had as one of my campaign slogans, “Not Just One of the Boys!”  And I never have been!

So from the outset, it was clear to me, and to each of us, that we were far too few to be divided among ourselves along partisan lines.  We recognized that we held not only a tremendous responsibility, but an obligation to “go to bat” for the women of America.  We knew full well that our success or our failure rested solely upon our shoulders and that if we didn’t fight for women’s issues – no one would.

As a result, I joined the Congressional Caucus on Women’s Issues, which I co-Chaired for ten years with Democrat Pat Schroeder.  And when we spoke on these issues, we spoke as women, not as Republicans or Democrats.  That’s what drove our agendas at the Caucus – and, together, we started to make a real difference for women. 


Yet, there were still vestiges of the reception that women had faced throughout the years from some of their mostly male colleagues.  As I describe in my book, Fighting for Common Ground, one time, during my early days in the House, I was nominated by a Republican colleague to become a member of a discussion group within the Republican Party, but a male colleague shot me down, saying, “We can’t have women here.” That simply would not happen today.

But that pales in comparison to what Congresswoman Schroeder encountered when she joined the House Armed Services Committee in 1972.  No woman had ever served on that committee, and when she was appointed, the Chairman, F. Edward Hebert, told her, “I hope you aren’t going to be a skinny Bella Abzug,” which was intended to insult both Congresswoman Schroeder and the feminist Abzug, a representative from New York.

Unforgivably, the Chairman also objected to the committee’s first African-American member, Ron Dellums, and when the committee met, he made both Schroeder and Dellums share one chair because, he said, they were only worth half a seat each.  Well, both got their own seats -- and Hebert eventually lost his chair.  Once again, these horrific scenarios would never occur in the present day Congress.

With respect to encouraging more women to get involved, I think there are a variety of factors.  Among them, the President of the National Federation of Republican Women has observed that “When we train women to fun for office or encourage women candidates, the studies have taught us that women have to be asked to run.” 

I also think it’s critical to change the current, caustic political atmosphere of hyper-partisanship.  It is difficult to speak in broad terms, but I believe there are many women who might want to run for office who are more interested in getting things done than engaging with the vitriol that seems to come from all quarters today.  That’s certainly true with respect to the rise of outside groups and the 90 percent of their ads that are attack ads.  That’s not to say women aren’t tough, but rather that in general they are turned off by it -- and rightly so.


Q: How can Millennials overcome barriers to running for office such as lack of money and experience and dealing with complex policy?


A: I think among the many positive attributes millennials can bring to campaigns is a powerful authenticity when it comes to their concerns about the future of this country.  I have been speaking at college campuses throughout the nation, and I am consistently impressed by the level of engagement and understanding that young men and women have with respect to the issues that will dictate the quality of America’s future.  Being able to focus on those priorities and speak about them in a manner that resonates with Americans in their everyday lives can go a long way in capturing the attention and support of voters.

Cultivating a network of people and supporters is also critical, and this era of social media provides unique opportunities to do so without exorbitant costs.  Building grassroots networks is key. We’ve seen recent examples in which greaterlevels of money expended in a campaign have not translated to electoral victory, and nurturing strong grassroots champions can be a crucial factor.

I would also strongly encourage millennials who are interested in building experience to volunteer on campaigns whenever possible, or in local congressional offices. Additionally, internships with elected officials and in government offices at any level provide an invaluable education – and while you may not necessarily become a policy expert in any one field, the practical knowledge you will obtain is priceless. 

As part of a study program when I was attending the University of Maine, I worked for the governor of Maine for two summers.  During the first I worked for a woman who was a technical assistant for Head Start, and as we traveled the state, I saw firsthand the value of the program.  It made a huge impression on me, and was one reason why I became such a staunch proponent of Head Start years later in Congress. 

The second summer, I spent a month reviewing legislation other states were considering or had enacted.  Later I was assigned to interview officials at the various state agencies to assess the effectiveness of initiatives like the Bulk Food Program, a forerunner to Food Stamps.  These experiences were nothing short of indispensible.   

Finally, I’ve always found throughout my tenure in public service, and frankly in all facets of life, that there is no substitute for doing your homework.  There is no shortcut with respect to studying and researching issues and policy. But it CAN be done – and given the level of energy intellect I’ve seen with so many of the younger people I’ve encountered, I have every confidence in the millennial generation’s ability to do so.   

Q: What would you say to those who say Congress should be representative of the national political intractability and therefore is functioning as it should be given the current political climate?


A:  The problem is, divided government still must be made to work.   I can recall innumerable instances throughout my 34 year tenure in the U.S. House and Senate when we had rigorous debates and stark differences in approaches on issues.  Unlike today, however, we most often found a way to get beyond the all-or-nothing propositions. 

Our ability to do so is all the more crucial in a period of hyper-partisanship.  It is not acceptable that, currently, Congress isn’t fulfilling even its most fundamental obligations – such as passing appropriations bills to fund the government.

Moreover, I believe that while the nation is divided politically as we’ve seen reflected in the close popular vote totals in the past several presidential elections, it is not as hyper-partisan as Washington.  Even as individuals may identify themselves as Democrats, Republicans, or independents, they usually consider themselves Americans first.  Therefore, they ultimately place “nation” above “party.” They advocate for their positions as the right course for our country but understand that, in the end, no single political philosophy or approach can prevail 100 percent of the time – and that an unyielding adherence to ideology is a recipe for deadlock.

In my view, this is the result of a number of factors, including the gerrymandering of House districts.  When party organizations oversaw redistricting efforts after the 2010 elections, each one worked to make certain their own incumbents would be safe by redrawing districts so that more Democrats were placed into Democratic areas or more Republicans into Republican areas. 

We’ve also experienced explosive growth over the past two decades of so-called “third party groups,” that are often funded by advocates who will not accept anything less than unyielding adherence to their position and ideology.  It is illustrative that 90 percent of the activities they underwrote in 2012 were attack ads. 

Their astounding bankrolls have enormous power to flood the airwaves with invectives and influence elections.  In 1990, just twenty-four years ago, total outside spending in that election was a scant $7.2 million.  Fast forward to 2012, and according to the New York Times it was an astonishing $524 million at the least -- almost 73 times the amount in 1990! 

Another part of the problem is that closed primary systems typically produce two candidates in the general election who reflect more the far ends of the spectrum for each party, rather than candidates who are predisposed to consensus-building.

As a result of these and other influences, now more than ever, many elected officials are appealing to the extremes of their party’s political base, rather than the majority who do not occupy that political ground.